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Conference Dinner Address : The Bird of Agriculture Must Fly with Both Wings

Ruth Paterson

"Moreton Hill" 513 Oaks Road, OAKS 7303,Tasmania

Farming in Australia is predominantly a family business. A business and a family that must adapt to change because we live, work, eat and sleep at the workplace. In fact you don't realise the consequences the business has on your family until your child brings home a city school friend. It is then that you witness the scrum as your two daughters rugby tackle her to the sitting room floor for committing the ultimate sin of talking during the television weather forecast. Australia has been a tough country to tame. In recent years we have learnt to farm with the land and climate instead of against it. Yet so much of the urban Australian's image of the farmer is locked into that national identity of the Aussie Bloke – the tough guy battling against all odds. He is reliable and durable and is born with the attitude of never say die. The "Aussie Bloke" brings dependability to all our lives – it's the persona we would all like to have. Our romantic ideal of what it means to be Australian. However on most modern Australian farms everyone has a role to play – not just the bloke, as no one person could possibly do all that is required alone.

As an example, I would like to tell you about the Quality Assurance program we have just implemented on our family farm:

  • To gain accreditation I have written no less than 8 policy statements covering all aspects of our farming practices and have developed a filing system any office would be proud to own.
  • to comply with the rational use of chemicals, Philip has undertaken both a first-aid certificate and a chemical handling training course;
  • he has also built two separate locked storage areas for the chemicals and fuels, which are cement bunded to prevent spillage into the waterways;
  • we have a recycling policy for all farm and household wastes; and
  • our daughters Isabel and Stephanie monitor the wildlife and protect the vegetation so that our operations do not impact on the conservation value of our property.

Like all good businesses we have embraced the changes so as to maintain market share for the products we produce and because we care for the environment, which is the future of our farm, our family and our rural community.

But where does all this fit into the other end of the food chain - consumers who know very little about the family farmer of this new millennium and are more remote from the supply end of the chain than ever before. Meat comes on plastic trays, milk in bottles and I hate to think about their reaction to the realities of egg production at the basic level. As a society we demand convenience and large chain supermarkets are gearing their stores to meet this demand. These days they now include banks, florists, butchers, bakers, coffee shops, chemists, nursery items and so on, all under the one convenient roof.

The effect is small businesses of which I include farming are laying dead and dying along our country roads and suburban streets all because as a society we are demanding convenience to keep pace with our busy lives. It is inconvenient to take a few extra minutes to patronise the green grocer, butcher, chemist etc. But if we don't, what is the eventual cost of market manipulation?

Will consumers really benefit from competition policy if and when one or two multinational corporations control the whole food market? It is estimated that in five years time 25% of all US groceries will be sold through Wal-Mart – which will want just one supplier. Wal-Mart carefully controls its expenses to maintain its low price structure by only paying its suppliers once the product is sold. To keep pace, much of US agriculture has gone corporate. While travelling in the USA in 1998, it was not unheard of to see 65,000 cows in one dairy operation, 100,000 sows in a piggery. Mass production foods to meet a mass production market. But what about the impact on the environment when keeping these large numbers of animals in a concentrated area, producing heaps of slurry and muck? Forget about the middle class Sydney-sofa-set's push for more organic products, hands up who wants their food mass produced compared to the conventional methods utilised on my quality assured, minimal chemical usage, family farm operation. Shouldn't the pendulum currently swinging between organics on one side and large-scale mass production on the other have a more sustainable resting-place with family farming?

So what skills will I, the Australian family farmer, require if I am to keep pace from the push of competition policy and market concentration? We need to create a climate for change. We need leaders, leading boards and committees that truly reflect what is currently happening on Australian family farms. It's called the diversity factor. Modern agriculture grows a diverse range of products for a very diverse range of markets, but our decision-making areas do not reflect this change. Women are 32% of the rural workforce, yet our representation on boards and committees only tops 24% and in most cases can be as low as 1%. We are flying like a bird of agriculture with a single wing.

Let me put the need for our decisions making areas to be balanced into some perspective. When all the responsibilities for decision-making are in the hands of people with a patriarchal view of the world, the emotional impact of decisions is generally ignored. This affects the family directly and extends into the wider community as well. Males are more comfortable with a rational approach to dealing with crisis. During the drought in the Central Highlands of Tasmania, government and farm organisations focused on planning, financial viability and practical options and their strategic implementation. They fed the sheep they could, shipped they sheep that could survive the trip to the digester and shot the rest. But which farmer received assistance in dealing with his sense of loss at the need to kill the sheep. The sheep he had spent years building up into a sound breeding flock and then to see all that hard labour disappear before his eyes.

Ah, but yes the myth of the Australia farmer that I spoke about earlier. Tough, strong, dependable, never say die. No wonder they are shooting themselves at record rates – suicide rates are much higher than road accidents – but do we acknowledge the problem and seriously fund a prevention program? The success of this industry is dependent on our ability to fully utilise our human resources, the men, women and young people that make up our industry and the rural communities in which they are based. Including women because we are different – capturing that difference which will result in better productivity that contributes to Australia's economy.

We need advice – sound well researched advice from professionals who are adequately resourced by research and development (R&D) corporations that again reflects what is truly happening in the food chain. Do you as extension leaders listen to our needs and hear what we are saying or do I hear 'trust me I'm from the Government'. What an oxymoron that one is. It's like Microsoft Works. How can you understand your client base, without basic market research in understanding them, where they are at and how they perceived their needs.

What is the percentage of R&D projects that are not technically or production focused that actually get up for funding which will allow the bird of agriculture to fly with both wings. I understand this imbalance is gradually being addressed, however it was only three years ago that I was laughed at for daring to put forward a non-production proposal based on personal development of future industry leaders to the local ARAC (Australian Research Advisory Committee). An industry leader advised me 'don't do it Ruth, you will be laughed at'.

Not only are there huge environmental concerns with mass production agriculture there are also ethical concerns about a fair living wage for farmers, the declining number of small farms and the impact this is having on rural communities. The fair living wage for farms is contributing to the loss of youth and brains at the production end of agriculture and it's an issue that needs to be researched, publicised and urgently addressed.

Perhaps we can all learn from history. The following is a paragraph from 'In the Jungle' by Upton St Clare:

'You would get glimpses of the Beef Trust from all sorts of aspects and you would find it everywhere the same. It was the inclination of blind and greed. It was a monster devouring a thousand mouths, trampling with a thousand hooves. It was the great butcher. It wiped out thousands of businesses every year, it drove men to madness and suicide, it forced the price of cattle so low as to destroy the stock raising industry, an occupation on which whole States existed. It had ruined thousands of butchers who had refused to handle its products, it divided the country into districts and fixed the price of meat in all of them. With millions of dollars a week, it was reaching out to control other interests – it already owned the leather and grain businesses of the country.'

'In the Jungle' was written in 1906 and was the first novel of its kind that was politically based on a social movement. St. Clair wrote about immigrant families who were bought into the Chicago area and were part of the meat processing industry. Without language skills and legal protection, the families were used as essential slaves in an industry that became so concentrated, prices were driven down, cattle producers were driven out of business and small town butchers left the industry forever.

When you consider world food is currently controlled by three vertically integrated multinational companies, how can we (you are in this too) reach the management and their shareholders about their environmental, social and ethical responsibilities as to the true cost of food, be it local or imported.

Pardon the pun, but feeding the world is a growing issue. The genetically modified organisms debate, as it continues to collide with ethics and politics, has highlighted how far behind agriculture is in the publicity race, how little the consumers of our products understand about our industry and how fast we are going.

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